Day 6

President Erdogan's bid to consolidate power fuels fears of authoritarianism in Turkey

On Sunday, Turkey will vote in a constitutional referendum that would grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan much broader powers. Since a failed coup last summer, Erdogan has removed 130,000 government employees from their jobs and jailed more journalists than any other country at any one time. And yet, Erdogan has many supporters and may be successful in the referendum.
A large image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is placed outside the Turkish consulate during protests in Rotterdam, Netherlands on March 11, 2017. (YDylan Martinez/Reuters)

On Sunday, voters in Turkey will go to the polls to cast their ballots in a referendum on a series of proposed changes to the country's constitution.

The changes could result in broad, increased powers for the office of the president. That has opponents of the changes fearing that Turkey could be moving toward a dictatorial government.

Right now, Turkey is a country in crisis. It faces terrorist threats from secular Kurds and the Islamic State. It's facing ground battles in its southeast and in neighbouring Syria. And as a result of the war in Syria, Turkey is now home to more Syrian refugees than any other country.

"They feel that they need a strong government, a more centralized government to deal with all those crises." - Patrick Kingsley,  The New York Times

Patrick Kingsley is The New York Times' correspondent in Turkey. His series, "State of Emergency," details the many issues at play in the referendum. As Kingsley tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the state of unrest in Turkey is part of the reason why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a fair amount of support from voters.

"They feel that they need a strong government, a more centralized government to deal with all those crises," says Kingsley.


New Powers

Kingsley notes that the referendum is not specifically about President Erdogan, but rather about the office of the presidency. That said, Erdogan is the candidate favoured to win in the 2019 Turkish election, meaning that he would be most likely to benefit from these new powers.

"He would inherit a presidency that would have almost unparalleled power in the history of Turkey," says Kingsley.

Among the proposed new powers would be the ability to issue decrees, as well as more control over the judiciary.

"He would appoint 12 of the 15 judges on the constitutional court, i.e. the very people that are supposed to scrutinize the legality of his decrees," explains Kingsley. "And so a picture emerges of very little gap between the executive and judiciary."

That would means fewer checks and balances over the president's power, which is why critics of the referendum fear that a 'yes' win could be a slide toward dictatorship.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes as he speaks about the referendum during a meeting on March 19, 2017. (Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service/Associated Press)

Since a failed coup last summer, Erdogan has exercised his current powers by firing 130,000 government employees suspected of supporting the coup. In addition, more than 45,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers and politicians were arrested after the coup, and Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country at one time.

Despite the arrests, firings and the resulting instability, Erdogan has enough support to make the vote too close to call.



Kingsley gives three main reasons for Erdogan's ongoing support, two of which involve an improved standard of living.

"The first is that Mr. Erdogan and his allies have been in power now for 15 years, and for most of that 15 years, people prospered," he says.

 "There's a sense that he's restoring dignity and agency to a section of society that was previously ignored."- Patrick Kingsley,  The New York Times

Kingsley makes note of the improvements to hospitals, infrastructure and the economy.

"People feel that they've done well out of Mr. Erdogan's government."

The second reason Kingsley gives for Erdogan's support is the country's increased religious freedom.

Previous governments had banned women in headscarves from taking government jobs and from attending university.

"Mr. Erdogan has gradually removed those bans," explains Kingsley. "And so there's a sense that he's restoring dignity and agency to a section of society that was previously ignored."

Lastly, Kingsley refers back to the unrest in the country and says that voters are looking for a steady hand to guide the country through the turmoil.



Walking the streets of Istanbul, support for the 'yes' side is very prominent in the many posters and signs posted on walls and windows. Less obvious are signs from the opposition.

"There is a huge amount of pressure on people who are campaigning against the expansion of [the president's] powers," says Kingsley.

Clearly people are either afraid or they've not been able to put up 'no' posters.- Patrick Kingsley,  The New York Times

He describes interviewing people who say they have been shot at for putting up 'no' posters. Others have been beaten up for campaigning against the proposals.

Polls in Turkey suggest that at least 40 per cent of the population are on the 'no' side, but their posters are few and far between.

"Clearly people are either afraid or they've not been able to put up 'no' posters and 'no' banners, and that tells its own story about the fairness of the campaign," says Kingsley.


What will change on Monday?

Kingsley says that it's clear Erdogan is concerned that the 'yes' side could lose the referendum.

Erdogan's campaign has suggested that 'no' voters are somehow aligned with terrorists, says Kingsley.

"The fact that we've gotten to that level of rhetoric suggests that they are worried enough to raise the stakes to that extent."

But regardless of the results of the vote, Erdogan is already exercising some of the powers he aspires to achieve in the referendum. If the 'yes' side wins, it merely formalizes the situation that is already in place unofficially.

"Anything is possible," says Kingsley. "Personally, I wouldn't want to speculate more than that."

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Patrick Kingsley, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.